What It's Really Like to Be a Black Student at an Elite Private School

How do race and class affect education in the United States? That’s the question at the heart of American Promise, a documentary that follows two African American boys from their middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood to the prestigious Dalton School, one of Manhattan’s top-tier private academies.

The film, which won a special jury prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, spans a 13-year period, tracking the boys from kindergarten to their graduation from high school. The filmmakers—psychologist Joe Brewster and his wife, Michèle Stephenson, a civil rights attorney—are the parents of Idris, one of the two boys whose journeys are the backbone of this narrative. For over a decade they turned the camera on their own family—and Idris’ friend, Seun’s—to document the challenges the boys and their parents faced as African Americans in an elite institution, as well as the misperceptions and stereotypes that dogged them. Officials at Dalton had promised that the school would mirror the racial makeup of New York City, but that didn’t happen during their time there, and the boys regularly felt targeted and misunderstood. Eventually, Seun would leave Dalton for Benjamin Banneker High School, a predominantly African-American public school in Brooklyn, while Idris remained at Dalton. Both boys started college in 2012.

Brewster and Stephenson have a book coming out early next year called Promises Kept, about what their journey with Idris taught them about education, the achievement gap, and how parents can best advocate for their children. The couple met with AlterNet recently in San Francisco to talk about the importance of parental support, the bias they encountered (much of it well meaning), and how they made a story out of 800 hours of film.

Emily Wilson: In American Promise, we see scenes of your two families and the boys at school, but there are no education experts on film. Why did you decide not to include them in the movie?

Michèle Stephenson: As filmmakers, the films we like the most are always direct cinema driven: they unfold like a narrative film unfolds. We wanted to push the envelope around that and we wanted people to experience the moment, experience the stories, and not necessarily remove themselves from the intimacy in the film with expert perspectives. This is something we came to pursue as the years went on, because we did interview experts along the way. But we quickly saw it’s very hard to integrate [those interviews] into the kind of story we wanted to have unfold.

We have used those expert interviews—they’re now married to our website, so there’s an expert perspective available on some scenes. That’s what’s nice about being documentary filmmakers now—you can really plumb that material and use it on multiple platforms.

Joe Brewster: We ended up speaking to 55 experts, and one of our experts asked us to write a book, Promises Kept. It unpacks what we learned and failed to learn, and what the experts are thinking about interventions that parents and teachers and the students themselves can put into place. We look at things like implicit bias, learning challenges, code switching, diet, exercise, learning challenges. Even though those interviews didn’t ultimately fit [the film], we were able to repurpose and use them in another arena.

MS: The book picks up where the conversation leaves off, digging down into potential solutions and giving parents more information so they can become better advocates for their children.

EW: What did you think was the most important thing you learned from the experts?

MS: While we know that the social and emotional [aspects of schooling] are important, what I came to realize is that not only are they important, they’re crucial to academic success. Another element we delve into in the book that’s touched on throughout the film is how parenting styles can have an effect on children and their sense of self and resiliency as they face obstacles.

JB: I learned that implicit bias affects us also. So we, African-American parents, have to be vigilant in terms of providing our children with expectations. You know, African-American families, a lot of us are newly middle-class—so when our son wants a television in his room, we want to get it for him. But if you put that television in that child’s room, it’s almost like a death sentence. Parents with good intentions placing that television in the room, the graduation rate plummets close to zero. We want to protect our sons from what we anticipate will be a harder going, and sometimes in doing so we make it more difficult for them.

EW: What is implicit bias? Can you explain?

MS: Our intention when we picked the school was to protect our son from the implicit bias and low expectations we felt existed in the public schools of New York City. We thought that by him having individualized attention, small class size and rigorous expectations around academics, we could protect him from that.

JB: And an environment where they promised that the school would look like the city of New York.

MS: They promised they would diversify, but he ended up being one of three African-American boys of a class of 90. There were experiences for us that raised red flags around unconscious bias, or where the best of intentions had negative racial connotations. One example of that is that both he and Seun were requested to do a tutoring program at school. We and the boys did not realize that they were the only two boys taken aside in that grade to do that tutoring program, and that it was visible to the rest of the grade. That has a negative racial impact. It doesn’t matter if we’re told by the administration that many other kids are being tutored, but they’re being tutored in the privacy of their homes.

JB: If you’re going to do that there has to be some explanation to the kids, so they understand that other kids are being tutored also. The implicit bias, the stereotypes are still in play. [Yet these concerns] weren’t answered or discussed. We were told that if our son were in a public school, he wouldn’t need this. That didn’t help us feel any better or answer our questions. And, in fact, the tutoring was not that good.

MS: So it didn’t really level the playing field either from a self-esteem perspective, or from the content of the tutoring.

JB: So that’s an example where the best intentions were not effective because the school didn’t know who we were or what our needs or anxieties were. But we developed a better understanding over those kinds of issues, and they were frequent. A parent who’s not vigilant and not talking to other parents and drilling down on what these assumptions are is going to be overwhelmed by them.

EW: When Seun went to Benjamin Banneker, the public high school in Brooklyn, did you think about sending your son there as well?

MS: We did a search for high schools. We were going to leave Dalton—that didn’t make the film, but we did search for other places. When the Dalton School found out we were searching, they proactively recruited us to stay.

EW: What made you stay?

MS: We had conversations with Idris, and the way they were pitching the high school we sensed that it was gong to be a different experience—and it was. So, ultimately, he decided to stay. I have to say that with all the difficulties we encountered, every time I would go to parent orientation I would be just blown away by the level of stimulation and intellectual curiosity that they were fostering, and we continued to believe this would prepare him well for college.

JB: Also, we had our own social/emotional support system put in place. That included our dog, Raja, and Idris’ participation in a citywide diversity initiative. He was given as a homeroom teacher and advisor the only African-American male teacher in the school, and that was quite helpful for him. He worked very hard in those classes and seemed to thrive despite the extra rigor.

MS: Also, the high school told us more of his cohorts, more students of color, more students from the outer boroughs were coming in, so his network would widen in terms of the support of peers, and that’s what ended up happening.

JB: That group of black and Latino kids went from four or five in the eighth grade to 20 or so in high school.

EW: How did you start looking though the 13 years of film you had? What were you looking for?

JB: We started looking for signposts: significant events, graduations, term papers. But then we realized that didn’t work, because we had footage on almost any given day that was actually more compelling. So we began to organize around certain events, like Seun going to Benin. We shot 800 hours of film, but almost half of the footage was shot in high school.

EW: What kind of discussion are you hoping to start with this movie?

JB: I like people to understand that they have to be patient, that these boys have their own pace. We’re not just dealing with academics, we’re dealing with moral development and social and emotional strength. All of those things are important, so if the academics suffer a little bit as with Seun, maybe it’s because he needs more time on something else, and he can get back to the academics. And that’s what’s happened with him. He’s at York College, and he’s feeling much stronger. He did well at Banneker, but he had some huge losses—potential loss of his mother and the loss of his brother. He’s only begun to get over those.

What we like to say is these boys, because they’re dealing with a little bit more, may take a little bit longer [to develop], but ultimately they become culturally fluent in a couple of languages, and they’re great assets. These guys are swans being raised in a world of full of ducks. We’re hopeful, and we believe an awareness of the problem and acceptance that it exists is a big part of the solution. When we had a core group of parents who came together and spoke about these issues, it made it easier for us to get through it, and we were not ashamed. That’s part of the reason we made the film—because we believe that the shame is making it worse.

MS: Parents need mentors, too. People talk about how we’re exposing ourselves, but we feel there’s a power to that, and there’s nothing more validating than to encounter people in the audience who have seen it and realize they’re not alone. Certain things we experience as parents, others are experiencing it too, and it breaks down the isolation. I think that helps us become better advocates for our children.

EW: What about the film is most exciting to you?

JB: My father was a preacher and his heroes were the civil rights leaders of his time. That scene when I’m telling Idris that he doesn’t have to be the president but he can be productive–I think that’s what my father would tell me, and I think I’m being productive with the film. [To Stephenson] I think you have the same story with your father, a Haitian immigrant who would preach to you about making a difference.

MS: Yeah, absolutely, yeah.

JB: Not that we’re changing the world; we’re just putting a little to the cause and maybe contributing to the tipping point. But that’s rewarding. Because at the end of the day, when we’re long gone, we just want to have been contributors.

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